Fatah in freefall as Hamas and Israel battle

Fatah in freefall as Hamas and Israel battle

Palestinians in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, wave Fatah flags while awaiting the release of prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages held by Hamas — but support for the Fatah party has plunged. (Photo: AFP)
Palestinians in Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, wave Fatah flags while awaiting the release of prisoners in exchange for Israeli hostages held by Hamas — but support for the Fatah party has plunged. (Photo: AFP)

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories - Fatah, the largest Palestinian party, has seen its popularity plunge during the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, from where the Islamists violently ousted rivals Fatah in 2007.

Fatah's chosen path of negotiations has not brought about the Palestinian state promised by the Oslo Accords of 1993, and Hamas — after choosing violence instead — has seen its popularity soar.

Fatah chief Mahmud Abbas has led the Palestinian Authority — which has partial administrative control in the Israeli-occupied West Bank — since its creation in 1994.

But the PA is now weakened like never before, and Palestinian political divisions run deeper than ever since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7.

On that day, Hamas fighters swarmed across the border from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel and killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, according to the Israeli authorities.

They also seized about 240 hostages and took them back into Gaza.

In retaliation, seeking to destroy Hamas, Israel bombarded Gaza and launched a ground invasion in a campaign that the Hamas-run health ministry in the territory says has killed more than 16,200 people, again mostly civilians.

The old guard in the West Bank where Fatah holds sway wants calm to prevail so talks can take place — and so they do not jeopardise the positions and advantages they enjoy under the PA.

But the younger generation there says it has nothing left to lose and wants to revive the armed wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades.

Above all, they want an end to security cooperation agreements between the PA and Israel, which they deem to be a betrayal of the Palestinian cause.

"Oslo gave us a shot of anaesthetic," said one senior Fatah official who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the issue.

"Leaders who might have influence have too many personal interests linked to the Palestinian Authority, and can't take the risk of speaking out against its president" Abbas, the official said.

Little to show

Abbas, 88, is widely unpopular in the West Bank, where the Israel-Hamas war has led to increased popular support for Hamas.

On October 17, Palestinian police used tear gas against protesters chanting "Get out!" and "The people want the fall of the president!"

According to researcher Xavier Guignard, "for the demonstrators, either because of its inaction or its security cooperation, the Authority is increasingly seen as conforming with Israeli policy".

He told AFP there is "denunciation of the fact that Mahmud Abbas was incapable of reacting to what is happening in Gaza."

The Palestinian president — whose mandate expired in 2009 — cannot alienate the international community on which it is counting for help in reaching a settlement with Israel.

According to another Fatah official, who spoke on the same terms of anonymity, the party "leaders are careful not to show any sign of support for Hamas for what it did" on October 7.

Fatah, by choosing negotiation rather than violence, has little to show for this policy. Israeli settlements — regarded as illegal by the United Nations — continue to gain ground in the West Bank, and Israeli strikes on Gaza keep the human toll mounting.

Barghuti factor

After Abbas succeeded Fatah founder Yasser Arafat, who died in 2004, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades were sidelined.

Most of its fighters had been killed in clashes or attacks, or jailed by Israel, many for life.

Marwan Barghuti — presented by Israel as leader of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades — is the Palestinian prisoner best known across the world, and his name is most often raised in the context of a prisoner-hostage exchange.

Israel says militants still hold 138 hostages inside Gaza. Hamas seeks to exchange them for the roughly 7,800 Palestinians jailed by Israel.

Barghuti is serving a life term in an Israeli prison for his role in anti-Israeli attacks.

"He is the only one who can bring Fatah back together," said a former member of the Fatah security forces, also speaking on condition that his name not be used because he was not authorised to speak on the matter.

"He is accepted by Hamas and he is popular on the street."

In diplomatic circles, Barghuti is seen as the only man who can reconcile Palestinians and revive the Palestinian Authority.

While war rages in Gaza, Israel has intensified its military operations in the West Bank, where at least 258 Palestinians have been killed since October 7, according to the PA.

Among that toll are five Fatah fighters killed in Nablus on November 18.

They represent a younger Palestinian generation, born after the Oslo Accords or during the second intifada, an uprising between 2000 and 2005, which says it no longer believes in diplomacy.

"These fighters including from Fatah are organising themselves away from the political leadership," said Fatah official and former PA intelligence chief Tawfiq al-Tirawi.

It is, Tirawi told AFP, "a form of rebellion" affecting "the different Palestinian movements".

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